At the nexus of belonging and ‘othering’: Reflections from a racialized international development worker

I have had the opportunity to spend time in Amman, Jordan, as part of the Jordan Valley Links team. This Government of Canada-funded program works to support economic and social development for women and youth in the Jordan Valley. My experience has been generously funded by MEDA’s private donors. While this internship was initially created to support hopeful international development workers in gaining practical, on-the-ground experience in the communities in which MEDA works, my experience has been eye opening in other ways.

Before we were deployed to the field, MEDA provided interns with comprehensive training, including cultural sensitivity training. At the centre of this module is the universal understanding that the international development worker is inherently privileged over the client by way of race, class, wealth, education, and more.

For the most part, this is true. Being able to engage in international development work as an expatriate is, in and of itself, a mark of privilege. Having a passport to travel internationally, having command of a language that is universal enough to work in multiple contexts (such as English), having the financial ability to uproot one’s life are all indicators of privilege.

Throughout history, however, privilege has manifested in a more overt way. International development workers have been disproportionately white, high-class, and rich. Unfortunately, it is when these historic experiences are used as the inspiration for training and equipping a new generation of development workers that the reality of racialized people working in international development is lost. This new generation of racialized, diversified employees bring many opportunities, but also carry with them the challenge of wearing many hats, including being both someone with privilege, and in many other ways, someone without.

As a Muslim woman of colour, the daughter of immigrants, and a member of a persecuted minority group in Sri Lanka, I hold multiple identities that shape and influence the way that I approach my work. My ethnic ambiguity allows me to move in and out of spaces that are inaccessible by those that have historically been involved in international development. And while cultural sensitivity training is useful and speaks to the areas of privilege I do have – my education, my language, my nationality – the resources that are available to draw upon for cultural sensitivity programming are not sparking conversations about what it means to be a racialized person in international development work, particularly one that holds multiple intersections of identity.

Cultural sensitivity training offered within the world of international development has a lot of room for improvement. Unfortunately, the resources and information that are available are not able to reflect the reality that an increasingly diverse workforce will face when moving in and out of cultures as a visitor, but also as someone who may feel they are at home in a way they may never have experienced before.

People of colour sit between this strange space of existing as someone who is able to engage in developing and implementing effective interventions alongside communities that are vulnerable, while simultaneously belonging to the communities that are hosts of our interventions. Engaging in international development work as a racialized person is like looking in a mirror; we see ourselves reflected back in the faces of clients.

This ability to move in and out of cultures is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, I have the opportunity to engage in conversations and be present in spaces that my peers may not be able to. I might be able to speak to my experience as a young, university-educated, Muslim woman, but I can never speak on behalf of the experience of a young, university-educated Muslim woman in Jordan. On the other side of the same coin, however, I may have the foundational cultural and social formation to more readily and effectively understand the potential religious, social, or cultural nuances faced by this woman than a white, non-Muslim peer. Unfortunately, this means that I have the ability to insert and remove myself from the narrative as I please, and do not have to deal with the reality of the situations that clients face, no matter how much I may be able to empathize and sympathize.

But with this opportunity comes a unique set of differences and challenges. How can I reconcile the grace and warmth with which these client communities receive me, their imparting of personal anecdotes and stories because they, too, see me as a reflection of themselves, with the fact that I do exist within these spaces with a significant amount of privilege? I cannot hope to speak on their behalf, which is a lesson emphasized within cultural sensitivity training, but then how do I effectively use the information I have been gifted to improve interventions?

At the end of the day, I exist in this purgatory between two worlds: as both someone with privilege but without in my country of origin, and as someone who can move in and out of belonging in different contexts by virtue of my ethnic ambiguity, but where I will never wholly fit in. In international development, this can be a strength, because I am able to access spaces and conversations individuals who hold more visibly different social identities may not be able to access. But this fosters a cautious sense of optimism for the future: we understand that mainstreaming diversity and representation into all industries, including international development, is something to be celebrated and encouraged. This is with the disclaimer, however, that this opportunity is not taken for granted, nor is it used to further eclipse the voices of clients. Diversifying cultural sensitivity training to honour and acknowledge the intersections at which racialized people exist within the international development world will be crucial to effectively supporting and celebrating client communities in a more intimate way than before.

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